Friday, August 9, 2013

A Message For Our Times

Take the three summer action blockbusters(?) I saw--White House Down, Pacific Rim, Star Trek: Into Darkness--and put them in a blender.  You don't want to pulverize them.  You don't want to turn them into mush.  You just want to chop them finely, so if you have a "Pulse" button, use that to process them.

And here's what you will get once you've pushed that button a few times and stirred to an even consistency (depending on your ability to follow what follows, you may also get some possible spoiler alerts):

Kirk saves Spock. One Jaeger robot saves the other.  The last remaining Jaeger robot saves the world. Channing Tatum saves the President of the United States.  Spock saves the starship Enterprise.  Channing Tatum saves his daughter.  (Brief apology here: I blended Pacific Rim a little too finely and no longer have the names of the characters)  Cocky, hotshot robot guy and the actor who plays Stringer Bell in The Wire and is the star of Luther sacrifice themselves and their robot to give other robot final chance to save the world.  Kirk saves at least some of Starfleet Command. Channing Tatum saves the world from mutually-assured destruction.  Spock saves....

I think you get the idea, right?  I'm also very confident that you could take any of the blockbusters I didn't see--World War Z, Man of Steel, etc.--and add them to the mix and this plethora of people saving people and institutions and planets would expand.  I'm certain of it.  Pardon me for being so late to the epiphany game, but it only dawned on me last night that virtually every epic blockbuster movie is based on people saving people.  

And it really isn't just action movies.  Comedies, animated movies are almost always about somebody saving someone else, rescuing them from certain doomed love or putting it all on the line to confront social wrongs--bullying, alienation, discrimination, materialism.

Critics of Hollywood like to point out all of the bad messages oozing out of Hollywood, and there's no doubt something to that, but underlying all of these films is sacrifice, loyalty, dedication, risk for others, putting one's life on the line for a noble cause, 

But if you delve into literature, especially modern literature, nobody saves anybody.  Now why is that? Probably the last character to save/sacrifice himself in literature was in a Charles Dickens novel.  I exaggerate, of course. Characters may try, but either they can't or the person to be saved is not worth saving, or the attempt is flawed or goes badly wrong, and the "rescuer" is destroyed.  Think about it.  People don't save each other in Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vonnegut, McCarthy, Hurston, or Ellison novels.  There's no Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Tom Stoppard, August Wilson, Tony Kushner character coming to the rescue.  Ain't nobody keeping Anna Karenina or Randall P. McMurphy from their inevitabilities.

Nor do we ourselves do much saving in our lives.

We may try to gently steer someone back onto a path.  We may suggest counseling or try to get him or her into church.  We might commiserate with the person needing saving, might get together behind his or her back with a bunch of others and say a lot of sentences that begin with "Somebody needs to..."  

But put it all on the line?  Huh.  Stand up to evil, whatever or whomever that evil may be, for someone else? Not hardly.  Do anything or everything in the name of friendship or love?

Or go global.  Is anyone, Republican or Democrat, really working to save the poor?  The starving?  The diseased? The middle class?  As long as we have our energy needs met, does it matter what fracking is doing to North Dakota or Ohio?  As long as we have all the clothing choices we want, do the working conditions in Bangladesh matter?  Do you wake in the night with a burning desire to swoop in and save people you don't know?  Or ones that you do?  Pockets, only pockets of people feel these urges, and I am not one of them.  Most of us  certainly don't want to do anything that will jeopardize friendships or allow our children to be at risk or force us to do without.  We don't want to have hard conversations or to make difficult, life-changing choices.

So there exists a huge disconnect between the message for the age, which is what I would call the endless hammering of the "heroes risk it all to save people" theme of all of these movies, and the ways that we behave in our lives.  That message is too prevalent for us not to take notice.  The disconnect isn't that shocking.  The question is, why?  Why are we watching these movies?  Why are they being made in endless variation over and over and over again?  Is it so we can vicariously experience what it's like to care about someone or something to take that kind of chance, to make that kind of sacrifice?  Or is it because the cliche has become so mindless that we know what will happen and there's nothing vicarious about it at all?  It's up there on the screen and we're down here.

Or maybe it's just the action.  Maybe if we had the chance to steer those robots or fire those weapons as a way of being the hero, then we'd be more attracted to the job.  Maybe the message is being used to sell the action, to justify the explosions.  Maybe the whole thing is just a sham.  Certainly, movies are full of unrealities, but if the actual giving up of something important--comfort, safety, security, choice--to help out someone is one of those fictions or special effects, then I think we're really in trouble.

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